Youth Services Law

Parents Arrested for Unsupervised Children: The Rest of the Story

Boy on ScooterI am always outraged by the stories of parents arrested for allowing their children to play in ways that earlier generations considered routine. But a recent court decision reminded me that the story is not always as clear as it first appears. Tammy Cooper made headlines when she sued over her arrest for leaving her children unsupervised. She said, “I took my lawn chair and put it on the sidewalk where I always sit and watch them outside when they’re playing." Nevertheless, a neighbor reported that the children were unsupervised and a police officer charged Ms. Cooper with child endangerment.

A recent court opinion, however, sets out a different scenario.

According to the federal appellate court, a neighbor called the police at 9:56 PM, saying that Ms. Cooper’s children, both younger than five years old, were riding motorized scooters without adult supervision. The policeman who arrived to talk to Ms. Cooper “observed that the rear lift gate on Cooper’s vehicle was raised, . . . touched the hood of the vehicle and noticed that it was hot to the touch.” Ms. Cooper’s adult son unloaded a 12-pack of soda from the car. “From these facts, [the officer] inferred that Cooper might have been at the grocery store when her children were playing in the street.” The other responding officer spoke to two neighbors, who confirmed that they had seen no adults supervising the children, and that one neighbor “nearly struck Cooper’s young daughter, who darted out in front of her on a motorized scooter.” When the officers asked Ms. Cooper if she had been to the grocery store, she “stated that she was invoking her Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions.” The officers then called the District Attorney’s office, which authorized the arrest.

Ms. Cooper’s lawsuit claimed that the officer arrested her without probable cause, so the only issue was whether the trial correctly granted summary judgment to the arresting officer and city that employed him. The appellate court agreed with the lower court that the facts established probable cause. Ms. Cooper, of course, disputed those facts, but did not dispute that the eyewitnesses “gave these accounts to the police over the phone and at the scene.” Given the information that the officer had, the court concluded, he had sufficient grounds to arrest Ms. Cooper.

Of course, I have no idea which version of the facts is actually correct, and I have no idea why the officer felt compelled to arrest Ms. Cooper then and there. It seems that the authorities would have lost nothing by bringing charges after a more thorough investigation, especially given the fact that the DA eventually dismissed the charges. Nevertheless, the case is not as clear cut as I thought it was.

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